Overcoming roadblocks: How advocacy campaigns can influence decision-makers from the outside in

A wizened government relations pro once shared his approach to lobbying. Long on both years in the business and memorable maxims, he said it was simple: “If you don’t like a policy, then go change it.”

Notwithstanding the cheeky quip, it can make sense for a lobbyist who’s looking to secure funding, a legislative fix, or obtain an approval on behalf of a client to start by mapping out the stakeholders and taking on the issue directly. It’s the straightest line from Point A to B.

Of course, in practice, prompting decision-makers to act is rarely that simple. There are always roadblocks. The good news is that when a lobbying matter hits those roadblocks, digital advocacy strategies can give the issue some much-needed lift.

Let’s look at some of the most common roadblocks we encounter with public officials and how to overcome them with advocacy campaigns:

Roadblock #1: “That makes sense to me, but do my constituents support it?”

This sounds like a question about political will, or lack thereof. What the lawmaker is saying is that there’s just not enough energy right now to generate the necessary movement inside government. However, grassroots advocacy with a simple, real-world objective can quickly elevate the issue. Think about ways the current situation is causing hardship in constituents’ lives and how the proposed solution can remedy that. Then, using geographic targeting and the right messaging, enlist residents, small businesses, or community organizations in the right areas to convey their support directly to your advocacy target.

Roadblock #2: “If this is so critical, why are you the only one I’m hearing about this from?”

When vast arrays of policy matters are competing for slivers of decision-makers’ time, punching through the fog can be challenging. Consider ways to make your advocacy unexpected. When the lobbyist for the National Widget Association is presenting concerns about widget manufacturing, it may not move the needle. But a constituent sharing a compelling video on social media that garners thousands of views (and maybe a few legislators get tagged, too)—that can bring in new eyeballs and new awareness from within the halls of government.

Roadblock #3: “I’m willing to move forward on this, but I don’t think I can go it alone.”

What the decision-maker is really asking for here is cover. An advocacy campaign can provide both air cover (perhaps an op-ed in a targeted publication) or ground cover (a petition in support of the policy change). Should an elected official be asked by staff, colleagues, or the media about why she advanced the issue, it is a handy thing to be able to say, “Well, I was compelled to do something after reading about it in the news and receiving a lengthy petition.”

Roadblock #4: “This issue is too partisan, I don’t think I can touch it.”

Advocacy campaigns are most successful when they represent and serve broad coalitions. Appealing to individuals and organizations from all political perspectives will both grow the campaign’s membership and counter the partisanship critique. When putting together advocacy materials, think about the right message and positioning. These days, YIMBY (“yes in my backyard”) pro-housing campaigns are a salient example: left-leaning arguments for new urbanism and densification often pair compatibly with right-leaning stances on development and property rights. As a coalition, this type of advocacy can pierce through partisanship.

Roadblock #5: “I’m with you, but this is a decision that needs to be made by civil servants, not politicians.”

This is a tricky one. While it can be a deflection—in fact, elected officials routinely direct civil servants to create or implement policies—it’s also the case that bureaucratic obstacles are quite real. What to do next is tricky, too: it’s considered unseemly to directly target bureaucrats with an advocacy action. However, at a high level, a successful campaign is about a creating a multi-faceted advocacy ecosystem, where those who work in that policy space are actively aware of energy behind certain policy preferences. In other words, if you target the right elected officials with the right message, you’ll hit the right civil servants, too. When combined with pressure applied on the key political decision-makers, even this boulder in your path will start to move.

Creating Political Will from the Outside

While it may be tempting to solve a policy problem using the ‘inside game’ only, generating energy from a broad coalition of grassroots supporters—who can in turn apply pressure to decision-makers—needs to be an essential part of the modern government relations toolbox. Smart lobbyists and public affairs professionals deploy advocacy campaigns to generate the missing political will, thereby driving more meaningful and solutions-oriented interactions with elected officials or top civil servants and opening a window to success.

The tools may have changed, but mechanism is the same. It’s basic civics in action: our democratic system requires elected leaders to be accountable to their voters. To do otherwise carries electoral risk for the advocacy target and would be foolhardy, especially if that leader wishes to continue serving in office. Therefore, taking time to do proper advocacy is always worth it—even if it means taking a slightly longer path from problem to solution.

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